Do You Know These Words and Phrases?

Go Through Fire and Water ~ English for Students tells us, “Go through fire and water means to face any peril. This phrase originally referred to the medieval practice of trial by ordeal which could take the form of making an accused person hold or walk on red-hot iron or of throwing them into water.”


Blackguard ~ World Wide Words tells us, “It’s sad that this contemptuous term for a scoundrel, a man who behaves in a dishonourable or contemptible way, has fallen out of use, since it carries a big punch. Our usual pronunciation as “blaggard” obscures its curious composition. Who or what was the black guard that got itself such a dreadful reputation? If I had a time machine handy, I’d go back to about 1500 and ask some pointed questions of Londoners. Failing this device, matters have to remain somewhat obscure.

“The earliest recorded use, by a few years, was in 1535. Then it referred to low menials in a royal or noble household. They were the ones who looked after the pots and pans and other kitchen utensils: the scullions or kitchen-knaves. Nobody knows for sure why they were said to be black — perhaps the colour of the pots literally or figuratively rubbed off on them. A slightly later sense is of the rabble that followed an army about: the servants, camp-followers and general hangers-on (here black presumably has its common derogatory sense). There seems to be a third sense, which refers to a guard of attendants or soldiers who were dressed in black; it’s possible that there really was a Black Guard — so called — at Westminster about this time (there are account records that refer to them, but nobody has any idea who they actually were).

“By the eighteenth century, the term was applied to children and young people who made a living any way they could, either as boot blacks or general assistants to soldiers (presumably this was a joke on the literal form of the word). Our modern sense appeared about 1730, and was a highly offensive term for a scoundrel or villain, or any low worthless minor criminal.”


Paint the Town Red ~ Phrase Finder tells us the the phrase means to “engage in a riotous spree” and gives us a long explanation, of which I am sharing only part of it. “The allusion is to the kind of unruly behaviour that results in much blood being spilt. There are several suggestions as to the origin of the phrase. The one most often repeated, especially within the walls of the Melton Mowbray Tourist Office, is a tale dating from 1837. It is said that year is when the Marquis of Waterford and a group of friends ran riot in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray, painting the town’s toll-bar and several buildings red.



Further evidence for the event, but against it being the phrase’s origin, comes from a text below a picture of the revellers, dated 1837. The picture is labelled A Spree at Melton Mowbray and subtitled Or doing the Thing in a Sporting-like manner.

220px-Marquess_of_Waterford” That event is well documented, and is certainly in the style of the Marquis, who was a notorious hooligan. To his friends he was Henry de la Poer Beresford; to the public he was known as ‘the Mad Marquis’. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he is described as ‘reprobate and landowner’. His misdeeds include fighting, stealing, being ‘invited to leave’ Oxford University, breaking windows, upsetting (literally) apple-carts, fighting duels and, last but not least, painting the heels of a parson’s horse with aniseed and hunting him with bloodhounds. He was notorious enough to have been suspected by some of being ‘Spring Heeled Jack’, the strange, semi-mythical figure of English folklore. The phrase isn’t recorded in print until fifty years after the nefarious Earl’s night out.

“The picture portrays actual streets in Melton and it is very likely that it was a representation of a real event. The newspaper report describes the red paint in Ackermann’s picture, although that is difficult to discern in later prints. Neither the text of the picture nor later reports mention the Marquis of Waterford or, more importantly, the phrase ‘paint the town red’. Actually, as pointed out above, the first use of the phrase in print is quite a lot later – not until 1883 in fact, and in New York, not Leicestershire. The New York Times, July 1883 has:

“Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk… Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to ‘paint the town red’.”

“The other early references to the phrase also relate to America rather than England. The November 1884 edition of the Boston [Mass.] Journal has:


“Whenever there was any excitement or anybody got particularly loud, they always said somebody was ‘painting the town red’.”

“The next is Rudyard Kipling. That’s as English as you can get one would have thought. In this case though he too is referring to America – in his book Abaft Funnel, 1889:

“They would do their best towards painting that town [Chicago] in purest vermilion.”

There are other theories too:

“Jaipur (The Pink City) is the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. The old buildings of the city are constructed from pink sandstone. In 1853 it was painted pink in honour of a visit from Prince Albert. If that were the origin though, why don’t we paint the town pink?

“William and Mary Morris in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins say it probably originated on the American frontier. They link it to ‘red light district’ and suggest that people out for a night ‘on the town’ might very well take it into their heads to make the whole town red. Well, they might, then again they might not.

“It is sometimes said to come from the US slang use of “paint” to mean “drink”, When someone’s drunk their face and nose are flushed red, hence the analogy.”


Broom-Squire ~ Again I return to World Wide Words. They explain: “A house recently advertised for sale near the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey mentioned that it had once been used by broom-squires. These weren’t the minor aristocracy of rural places that the second half of their title suggests but poor rural artisans.

“They were famously evoked by Sabine Baring-Gould — Anglican priest, antiquarian and novelist — in his 1896 novel The Broom-Squire, set near the house:

“At some unknown date squatters settled in the Punch-Bowl, at a period when it was in as wild and solitary a region as any in England. They enclosed portions of the slopes. They built themselves hovels; they pastured their sheep, goats, cattle on the sides of the Punch-Bowl, and they added to their earnings the profits of a trade they monopolized — that of making and selling brooms. On the lower slopes of the range grew coppices of Spanish chestnut, and rods of this wood served admirably for broom-handles. The heather when long and wiry and strong, covered with its harsh leafage and myriad hard knobs, that were to burst into flower, answered for the brush. On account of this manufacture, the squatters in the Punch-Bowl went by the designation of Broom-Squires. They provided with brooms every farm and gentleman’s house, nay, every cottage for miles around. A wagon-load of these besoms was often purchased, and the supply lasted some years.

A broom-squire’s cottage, c 1900.
“A hand-coloured postcard of about 1900. The broom-squire’s cottage is presumably the brick-and-tile one in the background, a great step up from the hovels of earlier descriptions.

“Broom-squires were necessarily restricted to the heathlands of England, such as the Surrey Heaths of the story and the New Forest further south, though at times the brush of the broom wasn’t heather but birch twigs, strictly speaking turning their makers into besom-squires, a term that appears only rarely.

“Squire is not a term of respect here. Alongside its sense of a country gentleman was a contemptuous one that evolved from its oldest meaning of an attendant on a knight, hence later merely a servant, and a lowly one at that. A close relative is the long obsolete apple-squire, which may be politely defined as a male companion of a woman of ill-repute, more accurately a pimp (we may guess the apple was a sly reference to the biblical Eve, though the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a woman’s breasts were meant). Broom-squires, often itinerant and always poor, had an unsavoury reputation not so far removed from the then conventional view of gypsies.

“A footnote in The Sporting Review in December 1840 to an article about hunting over yet another heath, in Somerset, described broom-squires negatively as ‘A variety of the genus homo found on Quantock, living on whortleberries, dwarf-birch, &c, &c. Towards winter they frequent the lower grounds, and prey on game of all sorts, preferring that of their own killing.'”

Other reports mention the rude huts they inhabited. The thatched sixteenth-century former gamekeeper’s cottage mentioned in the property advert was unlikely ever to have been the home of broom-squires. However, it makes a good story for the sales brochures.


Have you watched the popular British-American drama television series, Penny Dreadful? Ever wonder the source of the title? 

Phrase Finder tells us, “Penny Dreadful is a cheap publication, containing melodramas written in a colourful and down-market style.

Penny dreadful magazine cover Penny dreadful is a rather dated expression, for no one can purchase a magazine for a penny these days.

“The expression is American and came into use in the late 19th century as a pejorative term for the numerous cheap crime magazines that purveyed poorly written and hackneyed storylines. The establishment were critical of the time spent on such by the working classes, as this comment in the North American Review, 1861 indicates: ‘They can read the ‘penny dreadful,’ but they cannot darn their stockings or mend their shoes.'”


Arenaceous ~ World Wide Words tells us, “It means to have the appearance or consistency of sand. Unlike sabulous and its close relative arenose, both of which also refer to something sandlike and which rarely appear outside lists of rare words, arenaceous is still very much with us.

“But it’s a term you’re most likely to find in a deeply technical article that discusses matters such as “the influence of matrix conduction upon hydrogeophysical relationships in arenaceous aquifers” or refers to the ‘squamulose lichen of both calcareous and arenaceous soils.’ The rest of us can make do with sandy.

“If its spelling reminds you of arena, a public entertainment space, that is no accident. Both derive from arena or harena, the Latin word for sand. The English word arena comes from the name for the central part of a Roman amphitheatre in which gladiatorial fights and the like took place and which was strewn with sand to absorb the blood.

“Very rarely you may find arenaceous used figuratively. James Russell Lowell did so in Among My Books in 1876 when writing of William Wordsworth: ‘He seems striving to bind the wizard Imagination with the sand-ropes of dry disquisition, and to have forgotten the potent spell-word which would make the particles cohere. There is an arenaceous quality in the style which makes progress wearisome.'”


Congé ~ Merriam Webster Dictionary gives us the origin of the word: alteration of earlier congee, congie, from Middle English conge, from Anglo-French cungé, from Latin commeatus going back and forth, leave, from commeare to go back and forth, from com- + meare to go. It means: a formal permission to depart;  a ceremonious bow; farewell; an architectural molding of concave profile. Meanwhile, gives us these historical examples: 


John S. Farmer in Slang and Its Analougues: Past and Present (Volume 1, page 130 – 134) gives us this definition of Barrack-Hack: “1. In an inoffensive sense applied to young women who attend garrison balls year after year. So used, there is no such imputation of lax morals as occurred in sense 2. 2. A soldier’s prostitute. “


Farmer (page 135) also gives us these slang words: Barres, which means “(gaming) Money lost at play, but not paid. The term is an old one, and has long been obsolete. A corrupt form of ‘barrace,’ an obsolete plural of ‘bar.’ (and) Barrikin “(common) Gibberish; jargon; a jumble of words. see quote: 1851-1861 H. Mayhew, London Lab. and Lon. Poor, vol. 1, p. 15. ‘The high words in a tragedy we call jaw-breakers, and say we can’t tumble to that barrikin. Ibid. p. 25, Can’t tumble to your BARRIKIN. [i.e., can’t understand you]. Ibid., p. 27, The rich has all that BARRIKIN to themselves.” 



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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3 Responses to Do You Know These Words and Phrases?

  1. carolcork says:

    Regina, there were a couple of phrases I wasn’t familiar with, Broom-Squire and Arenaceous.

    • I stumbled across broom-squire in one of the stories I read. I keep a list of words and phrases that I come across that have me searching for the nearest dictionary or internet connection.

  2. Danielle C says:

    These were really insightful and interesting, thanks so much for sharing!

Comments are closed.